Maurice Sporting Goods, Inc. v. BB Holdings, Inc., 2017 WL 2692124, ponders the reach of the promissory fraud rule (a broken promise normally doesn’t equal fraud), how to plead around it, and the law of the case doctrine.
After a multi-year business relationship for the sale of sporting goods imploded, the plaintiff distributor sued the defendant manufacturer for breach of a 2015 buy-back agreement that required the manufacturer to “buy back” unsold inventory.
The manufacturer counterclaimed; it claimed the distributor defrauded it and tampered with the manufacturer’s relationship with a key customer. Partially granting the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the counterclaims, the Northern District discussed the factual specificity required of a plaintiff to circumvent the general rule that promissory fraud isn’t actionable.
The Court first addressed the distributor’s law of the case argument – the manufacturer was trying to relitigate its earlier failed estoppel defense (that the distributor’s fraud barred it from recovering damages from the manufacturer). The court previously nixed the manufacturer’s estoppel defense because it failed to link the plaintiff’s fraud to the buy-back agreement.
The law of the case doctrine (LOC) prevents a court from reopening issues it previously decided in the same case. LOC is a flexible doctrine, though. A court will refuse to apply LOC if there is a change in the law, new evidence or compelling circumstances.
The court declined to apply the LOC doctrine here because the manufacturer’s stricken estoppel defense was premised on fraud by the plaintiff distributor related to a separate transaction – the original distributor agreement – that differed from the buy-back agreement that underlay plaintiff’s suit.
Next, the court examined whether defendant sufficiently alleged an exception to promissory fraud under Federal pleading rules. Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires heightened factual specificity in fraud claims as the Rule tries to discourage litigants from bootstrapping simple breach of contract claims into tort actions with wide-ranging damages.
Promissory fraud is a false representation of intent concerning future conduct where there is no actual intent to do so. While promissory fraud is generally not actionable, a plaintiff can plead around it by alleging egregious conduct or a pattern of deception or enticements that reasonably induce reliance. A fraudulent scheme exists where a party alleges a specific and objective pattern of deception including the who, what, where, and when of the misstatements.
Here, the manufacturer was able to point to three different agents of the distributor who made misstatements in three different phone calls in the same month to support the fraud counterclaim. These allegations that three distributor employees made false promises in order to sabotage defendant’s relationship with a major retailer were definite enough to meet Rule 9’s pleading requirements for fraud.
While there is some elemental overlap between an estoppel defense and a promissory fraud counterclaim, the defeat of one won’t always cancel out the other where they relate to different transactions and different underlying facts.
To allege actionable fraud based on a broken promise, a plaintiff must plead a scheme to defraud that equates to a measurable pattern of deception or factual misrepresentations.